Photographer Fred R Conrad visited a Virginia drug court last year and saw how individuals and families had been given a second chance so when he went back this summer he had a question: did they take it?

Opioid and methamphetamine abuse tore through this area like a wildfire.

This is the view of Rebecca Holmes, who is responsible for mental health and drug use outpatient treatment in Abingdon, Washington County, Virginia, as she looks back at the decision to set up a drug court.

Holmes, the medical director of Highlands Community Services, had seen how the growing crisis around opioids had taken such a heavy toll on families in the town, which is home to just over 8,000 people.


  • Early morning, Abingdon.

There was a growing need for a small group of addicts that did not respond to treatment or programs offered by the existing court or probation, she said, so five years ago she applied for a grant to use a federal model for a drug court that had first emerged in 1989.

The countys drug court has been in place for several years now and Holmes feels that it has never been more needed. Last year in Virginia there were more deaths from heroin and opioids than highway fatalities for the first time, and the governor declared a public health emergency.

Nationally, opioids are said to be killing 90 people a day.



  • The Washington County court house, left. Inside the county court room where the drug court meets every week.

Judge Lowe presides over the court and the program, which is a year and half long for those who are placed on it. It combines therapy with a structured program of court visits, random drug screens, curfews and full-time employment for participants.


  • Judge Lowe poses with Wayne Smith, who has completed the second phase of the four-phase drug court. Participants are rewarded for good behavior.

There is the ever-present threat of court sanctions if a participant relapses. Lowe says: The point of drug court is not just to treat the addict, its to make that person a model for the rest of their family so that they can break the cycle of drug abuse.

The Guardian visited last year and again this year in late summer to see how people who had gone through the court and who worked there were getting on.



  • Bubba and Ginger in their bedroom.

Bubba Rouse started abusing painkillers when he was a young teenager. He then stole various pills he could get his hands on. At 17 Bubba started smoking meth. He also became a father for the first time.

Bubba continued to use drugs and found a new girlfriend, Ginger, whose father had been sent to prison for meth when she was eight years old. Bubba and Ginger were both using meth and heroin when Ginger got pregnant. The reason I stopped using was because I knew I had a future coming with my baby and I didnt want to bring a child into a world like the one I grew up in.


  • Family pictures of the Rouse family are displayed throughout the home where Bubba Rouse grew up.


  • Playing with her Barbie dolls.

Ginger was able to get sober and her baby was born without any complications while Bubba was in prison. While in prison he was offered a place in the Washington County drug court program. Drug court can be very difficult, especially at the beginning. There are mandatory therapy meetings, frequent random drug screens, curfew calls in the middle of the night and you have to have to be employed full time. It was even more difficult for Bubba because he could not legally drive. Ginger became both chauffeur and workmate for Bubba this past year.


  • Bubba with his daughter.

They have managed to work together in a factory, on a construction crew and now at a fast-food restaurant. Bubba and Ginger moved in with Bubbas parents where Bubba was able to able to get closer to his oldest daughter. For most of the year his younger daughter, with Ginger, was taken care of by Gingers mother.


The family is now reunited and Bubba and Ginger have taken over the payments on a double wide trailer that they hope to move next to Bubbas parents home. After drug court graduation in six months, Bubba hopes to start working construction with Gingers stepfather.

Bubba said: Drug court has been good for me but there are not many programs in this area and I wish there were more things to help people quit early rather than when things get really bad.

Chris Brown


  • Maria Kestner is hugged by Chis Brown at her drug court graduation ceremony.

Chris Brown is a retired police officer with nearly 30 years on the job. As a police officer you get jaded after a while. You go to the same addresses and visit the same families all the time. It hit me when I started arresting the grandchildren of people I arrested when I was a rookie cop. You realize early on that you cant incarcerate your way out of this drug problem.

After retiring from the police force, Chris was looking for a job where he could help people. When the job of drug court coordinator became available, I jumped at the chance.


  • Bubba hands a drug test cup filled with his urine to Chris Brown.

This is a wonderful way to help people. I found my humanity with this job. Chris takes his job very seriously. Hes on call 24/7. He handles compliance with spot drug screens, curfew calls as well as issues of transportation, housing and dealing with family issues of those in the program.


You realize early on that you cant incarcerate your way out of this drug problem

He is not judgmental and he is a good listener. I remember talking with a drug addict years ago and asking him how he wanted to be treated. He told me he just wanted to be treated like a human being. Thats what I try to do with everyone in the program: treat them like human beings rather than drug addicts.

Joyce Yarber